The mighty horse carried his insignificant rider with tireless ease. Trained in the hard school of combat, Balder was used to bearing the weight of grown men in full armor upon his broad back. Quentin, clinging like a cold leaf to the magnificent animal’s neck, was scarcely a burden at all.
The day was young and still overcast as on the day previous, but the low cloud covering showed signs of breaking up before long. The wind had freshened, sending whirling white clouds across the tops of the drifts with every fitful gust. Each blast sent a shiver along Quentin’s ribs. He wondered whether he would ever be warm again. But he did not greatly mind the discomfort, for at last the change long foretold was in motion. Where it would lead, what it would mean, he did not know. For the present he was caught up in the adventure of it, yet he kept his eyes sharp to any omen that might present itself.
Nothing presented itself to his gaze except a vast expanse of white, unbroken except by irregular dark lumps mushrooming out of the snow. These were the peasant huts, and sometimes he saw a face peer at him from around the corner of a doorpost, or a timid wave acknowledge his presence as a bent form hobbled through the snow under a burden of firewood.
In his seven years’ cloister within the temple, the land, it seemed to Quentin, had changed little. Yet it had changed. There was something unmistakable in the eyes of the peasants he met, something that struck him fresh each time he saw it. Was it fear?
The thought gave him an uneasy feeling. Was something loose in the land that caused these simple people to be afraid?
The great chestnut warhorse plodded steadily on, his hooves silenced by the cushion of snow. Billows of steam spouted from the animal’s nostrils as its hot breath touched the icy air. Quentin turned his thoughts back on the brief procession of events that had placed him in Ronsard’s saddle, on Ronsard’s horse.
There had been a long, intemperate discussion following his spontaneous offer to assist the knight in accomplishing his mission. Everyone concerned—Biorkis, Izash, the other priests, and even the knight himself—had been against it. And still, when all the facts were laid end to end, there was no better plan. Quentin would go at once, allowing only a day’s rest and feeding for the horse. The animal had been found patiently standing in the outer courtyard of the temple, where his master had left him before climbing and then collapsing upon the outer steps. It was the horse’s whinny to his fallen rider that had alerted the temple guards, who then discovered the wounded, half-frozen knight.
Reluctantly, Biorkis had given his approval to the enterprise, for although his young age was against him, Quentin was the only logical choice. He was merely an acolyte, not a priest, as yet not having taken his vows or completed his initiation—a process that normally encompassed twenty years or more. Quentin had really only begun his instruction. At fifteen he still had years of study ahead of him; others his own age were already novitiates. The road to becoming a priest was a long one; most began it while still small children. Quentin, although dedicated to his calling at age eight, had come to it late.
Now that career was behind him. Never again would he be allowed to return to the temple, except as a dutiful worshipper begging some boon from the god. Ariel was a jealous god; once you had turned away, he knew you no more. Only by distinguishing himself in some act of great heroism could Quentin hope to regain the god’s favor. That he vowed he would do—just as soon as he could.
The journey from Narramoor, the holy city, to Askelon, the king’s stronghold, was a matter of two days by horse. The temple, according to most ancient customs of the realm of Mensandor, was built in the high foothills overlooking the land it sheltered with its prayers. In the spring and early summer, pilgrims came from all over the country to ask prayers for good crops and healthy livestock. Each town and village also had a small temple or prayer house that was presided over by one or more priests, depending upon need, but most worshippers preferred to make the pilgrimage to the high temple at least once a year, more often if it could be arranged.
The road, winding down from the steep hills beneath the jagged old mountains of the Fiskill, was not overwide, but it was well maintained— at least it had been up to the time of the king’s departure. Quentin remembered nothing of the king’s leave-taking, being but a babe in arms at the time. But in the years since, he had heard retold the vivid accounts of the splendor of that parting.
The king, dressed in full battle regalia emblazoned with the royal insignia—a terrible, twisting red dragon—had led his loyal warriors out through the giant gates of his castle. Amid a thousand fluttering banners and the call of a thousand trumpets from the high battlements, the king’s army marched through streets lined with cheering crowds and out onto the plains of Askelon. It was said the procession lasted half a day, so many men followed in his train.
The entourage had traveled to Hinsen-by-the-sea—or Hinsenby, as it was usually known—and had boarded the sturdy warships awaiting them in Hinsen harbor, then sailed forth. The ships were provided by King Selric of the small island country of Drin, whose people were known to produce the world’s greatest sailors.
Other kings from other lands joined them, swelling their forces beyond anything ever before seen or imagined. They were going to meet the barbaric Urd, a race of creatures one scarcely dared to call human, who were so savage, so brutal, their very existence imperiled all. The Urd, united under their king, Gorr, had risen in defiance of all civilized order, vowing to extinguish or make slaves of other nations. They would rule the world.
The twelve kings of the civilized nations had met and declared war upon Gorr, sailing to meet and join in battle with him in his own lands before the evil lord had time to mass his army against them in theirs.
The fighting had begun in early spring, and by summer it looked as though the campaign would conclude before the winter set in, so successful were the united kings’ first encounters. The wily Gorr, seeing his warriors melt before the terrible onslaught, retreated to his massive walled fortress, Golgor. There the stubborn renegade dug in, establishing himself with a strength and fervor no one could have foretold. From Golgor the raving giant taunted the valiant forces of the kings; his raiding parties, though often beaten back with heavy losses, continually wore down their defenses. Winter found the enemies deadlocked.
The war, so easily won in the spring, dragged on and on. Years passed and the war continued. Thousands of men died in that hideous country, never to see friends or loved ones again. Several of the kings pulled out in the seventh year, returning home with the tattered remains of their once-proud armies. But Eskevar, Selric, Brandon, Calwitha, and Troen fought on.
For all Quentin knew, they fought on still.
Quentin raised his eyes to the horizon. He could see, it seemed, forever; the land fell away on every side, unobscured except for the occasional looming shape of a gigantic boulder or jutting escarpment that rose abruptly at intervals throughout the hills. But the slim rider was leaving the hills behind, and the dark line of the forest drew ever nearer as if by magic.
Askelon, his destination, stood on the far side of the forest. Beyond that to the west lay the flatlands and the farming towns, and the cities of the plains, Bellavee being chief among these.
To the far north was Woodsend, a substantial village of farmers and craftsmen, firmly planted on the banks of the Wilst River, a long, lazy branch sprung from the Arvin, whose headwaters originated, as did all the rivers that flowed throughout the realm, in the high Fiskill Mountains above Narramoor. At his back rose the imposing mountains themselves, and beyond them the regions of Suthland to the south and Obrey to the north.
These were the Wilderlands, remote and virtually uncharted areas inhabited only by wild animals and even wilder men, the Dher, or Jher, as they were often called.
The Jher were the lingering descendants of the most primitive dwellers of the land. They still clung like moss on weathered rock to their obscure ways, changing not at all since anyone could remember.
They were said to possess many strange powers—gifts that more disposed them toward the wild creatures with whom they shared their rough lands than rendered them acceptable companions for civilized human beings. The Jher kept to themselves, for the most part, and were alike left alone by one and all. Quentin, like most younger people, had never seen one. They existed for him as characters out of children’s stories, told to frighten and induce obedience in youngsters showing reluctance to behave themselves.
Quentin stirred from his meditation on these and other things to notice that it was approaching midday. He began looking for a sheltered place to stop where he might eat a morsel and rest the horse, who appeared not to be the least bit taxed for his exertion. The weak winter sun, which had been struggling to burn through the hazy overcast all morning, suddenly flared high overhead, like a hot poker wearing through sackcloth. Instantly the landscape was transformed from its ghostly pall into dazzling brilliance.
With the sun, although seemingly small and distant, came heat. At least Quentin imagined that he felt warmed, felt the heat spreading over his back and shoulders and seeping through his thick, fur-lined cap. Ahead he spotted a small stand of birch trees encircled by a tangle of forlorn shrubbery and several small evergreens. The site offered a slight shelter from the biting wind that, now that the sun was out, whipped more sharply.
Quentin found the sun good company as he reined the horse aside and tied him to a nearby branch. Clambering down from his steed, the boy fumbled in the shallow rucksack filled with provisions that Biorkis had made for him for the trip. He fished out a small loaf of seed cake and, throwing his cloak beneath him, sat down to eat his meal.
The sun played upon his face, warming the frozen tips of his nose and ears. Quentin removed his hat and turned his face to the thawing warmth. His mind skipped back once more to the bustle and confusion of his leaving; he rehearsed again, as one hundred times before, his instructions: Go to the hermit of Pelgrin Forest. Do not stop, except to eat and to rest the horse. Do not speak to anyone. Do not deliver the letter to anyone but the queen.
That last order would be the most difficult. But Ronsard, in his final act before losing consciousness, had given his dagger to be used to gain audience. The knight’s golden dagger would be recognized and would speak for the gravity of the occasion.
Quentin was not as distracted by his impending reception at court as he might have been. He was far more curious, and frightened—but curiosity held the better of his fears, to be sure—over the mysterious communication that was now sewn inside his plain green jerkin. He absentmindedly patted the place where it lay next to his ribs. What could it contain? What could be so important?
And yet, as intrigued as he was by the enigma he carried, a part of his mind was worrying over another problem like a hound with a gristle bone—an item he did not want to consider in any form at all: his future. He avoided the thought like a pain, yet it gnawed at the edges of his consciousness, never far from remembrance. Quentin delicately pushed the question aside every time it intruded into his thoughts: What are you going to do after you have delivered the letter?
The lad had no answer for that question, or the hundred others of a similar theme that assailed him at every turn. He felt himself beginning to dread the completion of his mission more with every mile. He wished, and it was not a new wish, that he had never stepped forward— he had regretted it as soon as he had done it.
But it was as if he had no will of his own. He had felt compelled by something outside himself to respond to the dying knight’s plea. Perhaps the god Ariel had thrust him forward. Perhaps he had merely been caught up in the awful urgency of the moment. Besides, the omens had foretold . . . Ah, but when did omens ever run true?
Eyes closed, face to the sun, Quentin munched his seed cake, pondering his fate. He suddenly felt a cool touch on his face, as if the sun had blinked. And high above him, he heard the call of a bird. Quentin cracked open one eye and recoiled from the brightness of the light. Squinting fiercely and shading his face with an outstretched arm, Quentin at last determined the source of the call. At the same instant his heart seized like a clenched fist inside his chest.
There, flying low overhead, was the worst omen imaginable: a raven circled just above him, casting flittering shadows upon him with its wings.